It’s time for sage-grouse to strut
You could see dozens of sage-grouse performing their mating dance during the March and April fieldtrips.
Every spring from early March until late April, male sage-grouse (also known as cocks) engage in a fascinating blend of dancing, vocalization and fighting. The fiercest males move toward the center of a clearing in the sagebrush (known as a strutting ground or lek), signaling upward climb in rank.
This movement toward the center of the clearing ensues once a male wins a fight with an opponent. Fights consist of wing slapping, kicking and lacerating the opponent with leg spurs. The loser breaks off the fight with a hasty retreat.
A group of females, which are about half the size of the males, appears at the strutting ground each morning. They seem to pay little attention to the dancing and brawling—at least until their hormones signal that it’s time to mate. Then, it becomes very apparent that she has indeed been paying attention to the happenings.
The hen rushes up to the champion male and crouches in front of him. Obligingly, he steps on her back and consummates the timeless ritual.
Mating takes only a few seconds, whereupon the female runs out from under the male and shakes herself vigorously. After that, she flies away in search of a nesting location. She won’t return to the lek unless she finds that the copulation has failed.
After mating, the successful male resumes his ritual dance, while every other male seeks to raise his status by beating up the rival that appears to occupy a higher status than he does. The remaining hens continue to feed on the new vegetative growth at the strutting ground.
The ritual presents predators with a golden opportunity. While cocks are focused on mating-related activities, coyotes and eagles take advantage of their distraction and try to make meals of the grouse. Sometimes, raptors passing overhead leave the birds hugging the ground, or running into the sagebrush. On other occasions, the group takes to the air in unison. Ground predators put all grouse into the air.
Whether predators are in attendance or not, the strutting show is over about an hour after sunrise, when the grouse either fly off or disappear into the sagebrush. The following morning, the process starts over again, unless rain, snow, wind or predators postpone strutting for another day.
Each year, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources offers the public several chances to watch strutting grouse at a variety of locations around Utah. Biologists, informative literature, spotting scopes and binoculars help participants make the most of their experience.
Check the division calendar for information on sage-grouse fieldtrip locations and times. Some trips require pre-registration and others do not. If in doubt, call the contact person.
Attending a sage-grouse fieldtrip is the perfect way to welcome spring. Although these watches require participants to rise early in the morning, it’s a sight that won’t be forgotten.